What is it like to be thrown into a Belarusian jail? Political prisoners tell their stories in a reportage by the Ekaterina Loushnikova, a radio and print journalist based in Kyiv.
It’s not hard for a ordinary citizen of Belarus to end up behind bars. All you have to do is take part in a rally or picket and that’s it, you’re detained, packed into a paddy wagon, and taken to SIZO №1, the jail on Volodarskogo Street in central Minsk.
The “Volodarka” or the Pishchalov castle, as it’s otherwise known, is an old jail, built in the time of Russian emperor Alexander I. Famous figures such as Józef Piłsudski, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Belarusian writer Yakub Kolas, Boris Savinkov, both a terrorist and a man of letters, and others have spent time here.
I recently visited the Volodarka, and spoke to former prisoners (and employee) so that they may share their stories.
Bialiatski’s on the freeze”
Ales Bialiatski, a writer and head of the Viasna human rights movement, was brought to the Volodarka in 2011, accused of not paying taxes.
“When I was brought here, prisoners were packed in like sardines,” he speaks of his first day behind bars. “There weren’t enough beds, we took turns sleeping. But I was brought to a VIP cell, where an ex-presidential candidate used to be kept. There they had enough beds. No other privileges, alas. It was a narrow room with a concrete floor, a toilet in the corner, behind a curtain, it was hot and it stank. Bars on the windows, a dim bulb by the ceiling, very little light. But on Sunday we could hear pleasant music, voices from nearby restaurants. After all, Volodarka is in the centre of town!”
“The food was also restaurant-like?” I joke.
“Only the bread was edible. You couldn’t eat the peas or barley porridge, or else you’d be tortured with stomach pain. We couldn’t eat the milk soup either, it had this pasta that was so overcooked it was a dense mass. We just took the milk and made fermented kefir out of it. We washed sour cabbage leaves and added to soup we made from packets. We were saved by the fact that we got two packages per month from the outside, with a weight of 15 kilograms. So, we could live, basically.”
Bialiatski was declared guilty of not paying his taxes and sentenced to four and a half years behind bars. At the same time, Amnesty International and 63 other human rights organisations recognised him as a “prisoner of conscience.”
“After being found guilty, I was brought to prison №8 in the town of Zhodino. There were people serving life sentences there, among others. The rules were harsh. A walk of no more than 40 minutes, no naps during daytime. Every week there were searches in the cells, my mattress turned into bits of wadding, they tore it apart. One day, there was a sudden fire alarm, we were forced to go outside with our things, made to kneel with our hands behind our backs. We stood there in that pose, in the freezing cold, for half an hour. I got sick the next day, I had a fever. I took the medicine my wife had sent me. They had no medicine in the prison.”
“Were prisoners beaten?” I ask.
“Not me. But you could hear people being beaten in the corridor sometimes, not hard, but one or two hits. Before they beat a prisoner as soon as he got to Zhodino for nothing, just to show him that his life wouldn’t be pleasant.”
Bialiatski ultimately spent three years in penal colony №2 in Bobruisk. In his prison regiment, 40 out of 100 people were in for murder. They gave Bialiatski a wide birth, contact with political prisoners could annoy prison management — parole and other privileges could be denied.
“What jobs did you do in the penal colony?” I ask.
“I was a packer in the sewing shop. My salary came to a dollar and a half per month. Prisoners sewed prison robes, insignia for the police, mittens, suits, scarves, and I had to pack all that. The ‘dirty’ jobs like cleaning toilets were given to prisoners of ‘low’ status. Of course, there were incidents when the criminals tried to bring political prisoners down ‘low’. Such as, they offer you to drink tea from a cup that a ‘low’ prisoner drank from — and that’s it! There were no such provocations against me, though.”
“As a prisoner, I was considered a ‘bloke’ (a regular prisoner). An informant I knew in the colony told me that he was once called up before prison management and asked, ‘What’s Bialiatski’s status?’ His reply was ‘Bialiatski’s on the freeze’.
“This is prison slang for someone who’s alone, who depends on no one, asks for nothing. I was released unexpectedly. They just called me to the warden’s office and said there was an amnesty, put me on a commuter train and sent me to Minsk. I’m writing a prison memoir now, hope it turns out interesting!”
The angry human rights defender
Inside the densely packed Volodarka, relatives of prisoners stand in line by the window where they can bring packages. These people are dour, their faces speak of crying jags and sleepless nights, they have neither the will, nor the desire to speak to a journalist. These people don’t need conversation, they need help, and that help is provided by the likes of Aliona Krasovskaya-Kasperovich, a rights defender.
“I have two diplomas – from medical school and a teaching college,” she tells me. “In 2005 I went to work as a nurse in penal colony №1. I fell in love with a prisoner, married him. Naturally, there was a scandal! I had quit. We spent six years between different penal colonies, my husband came under pressure. I fought for him, then I began fighting for other prisoners. My husband wound up murdered…”
Today, Krasovskaya-Kasperovich is the director of the Region 119 human rights bureau. There are 35 members of staff, most work for free. Neither the Belarusian government, nor international organisations sponsor the bureau. Legal aid in court, trips to penal colonies and prisons are mostly self-financed.
“I’m also a volunteer,” Krasovskaya-Kasperovich admits. “I work as a nurse, my salary is the equivalent of $150 per month. I have to survive somehow, and manage to help others survive. I always say, ‘We’re not pro-government, we’re not pro blatnye [high status] prisoners, we for the law!’ If I can brag for a moment – we have volunteer correspondents for nearly every Belarusian incarceration facility. I sometimes find out things before the head of the police finds out about them!”
“What are the chief complaints among the incarcerated?”
“Bad standards of medicine. This is how it goes with us – a prisoner gets ill, until he’s near death no one thinks of helping him. Sometimes they have nothing to treat him with, nowhere to treat him at. The prison hospitals are so rundown they need ‘medicine’ themselves. If a prisoner is taken to a normal hospital and urgently operated on, they’ll put him in handcuffs right after surgery. Someone just came back from the brink and he can’t even scratch himself. This is real torture!”
“Belarus, of course, is the last European country with the death penalty.”
“The problem is not the death penalty, it’s in the high number of illegal convictions. I knew a young man, Andrei Blazhevich, who was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. But when it comes to various degenerates, after you read how many people some guy killed, cooked and ate, your compassion goes away easily. You understand that he’ll spend decades behind bars and won’t get any better, there will be more anger, and hurt inside him, more desire to hurt and kill. I don’t want these to come out, I’m scared of them! Maybe it’s better if they are shot. I’m an angry human rights campaigner, I guess!”
According to human rights activists, 326 people were executed in Belarus since 1990, only one was pardoned by the head of state. The bodies of the executed are not returned to relatives, their final resting places are unknown.
The man who tricked the KGB
Ales Mihalevich would up in jail after the 2010 presidential election. He was the youngest candidate, and polled 5% according to unofficial data. As soon as election precincts were closed for the day, he was arrested.
“I was detained by the KGB’s special Alfa unit,” says Mihalevich, whom I’m visiting in his law office in downtown Minsk. “They kicked the door in, made everyone get on the floor. But I was lucky, I wasn’t hit. Those who were detained by the presidential guard were unlucky. Candidate Uladzimir Niakliaeu, for example, was beaten so badly during detention that he nearly died in jail.”
“What did the KGB want with you?”
“They said, ‘read this text out loud on Belarusian TV, and you’re free’. The text said that an evil opposition was agitating for the people to turn on the government and preparing a coup. I refused to read this gibberish, told them I wanted to go back to my cell. The management of a tractor factory, the head of the department of financial investigations, businessmen, drug dealers and a few foreigners were there with me. We had decent food, tasty pea soup, the porridge was very good, if you asked for extra tea they wouldn’t deny it. But after a few days strangers in masks began torturing the prisoners.
“They started to take us out on ‘naked formations’. That’s when you’re forced to strip naked and taken to a special room, where you were forced to stretch, nearly do a split, so the men’s testicles were scraping against the floor. Meanwhile they searched the cell. This procedure could last minutes or an hour. If you didn’t follow instructions you were beaten, then they’d write in the protocol that you attacked a guard. There were no toilets in most cells, and if you were taking out the bucket and spilled something, they could beat you severely and force you to clean this up with your clothes. What else is this but not torture and cruelty?”
“Were you also tortured?”
“There was that lovely incident when three people in masks brought me out of the cell, restrained my arms so that my joints popped, threw me down a winding staircase head first, and began to beat me. They screamed, ‘Will you f*cking cooperate?’ I screamed, ‘Yes!’. I was returned to the cell quickly and then brought to an interrogation and accused of spying. I could choose [who I was a spy for] – the States, Poland, or Germany. The person who interrogated me was very pleasant, with good manners and a higher education, he came from a family of chekists. There was a polygraph that lasted for six hours, it turned out, that I was perfectly honest. That’s when they offered me a chance to be their agent, code name Gavrila.”
“I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle the torture.”
“You decided to lie to them?”
“Why should I be nobler than they are?”
On 19 February, 2011, Mihalevich was freed, having signed an agreement to become “agent Gavrila”. Ten days later, during a press conference of Rukh za Svabody (literally: Movement for Freedom), which carried the slogan “No to fear!”, he revealed that he, a candidate for the post of Belarusian president, was tortured by the KGB in jail.
After a few days, Mihalevich left Minsk incognito, fearing reprisals from the chekists. He got rid of his tail by changing cars, made his way into Ukraine, and asked for political asylum in the Czech Republic. The Belarusian authorities demanded the “criminal” Mihalevich be extradited, but Interpol came to the conclusion that this demand was political motivated.
Mihalevich returned on his own accord, after all political prisoners in Belarus were freed. Today he is the last person accused of “mass unrest” in 2010. He got a new Belarusian passport recently.
Mihalevich works as a lawyer and looks to the future with his usual optimism. “Belarus will fix itself after Russia cools it with the ‘brotherly help’,” he says.
“You will rot in a KGB jail”
Our meeting reminds me of a picnic. We’re sitting on the grass in a Minsk park. My source won’t reveal his real name, I’m told I can call him Dzmityi. He’s 24, a computer specialist, and he calls himself an ethnic anarchist.
“We’re far ahead of Count Kropotkin and our understanding of anarchism differs. We have anarchy with a Belarusian face – we’re for the national language, culture and a revolution of consciousness!”
The ethnic anarchists promoted themselves online and spray-painted their slogans on buildings. One day they wrote, “Belarus should be Belarusian!” and added a Belarusian ornament, a crossed out swastika and a crossed out hammer and sickle and the phrase “A revolution of consciousness!” This resulted in a rough detention.
“We were sitting with my girlfriend and a friend by an open window. Suddenly, a riot policeman jumped in! And we were on the third floor!” he recounts, still shocked. “They barged into the apartment, forced us to the floor. ‘So, bitches, you don’t like Soviet government?’ As they waited for witnesses we were kicked, tasered, they said we would rot in a KGB jail. I had a feeling that we didn’t spray-paint, but sold heroin and killed 100 people!”
“I was incarcerated with a drug dealer who sold drugs in big amounts in Russia, 10 of his buyers died from overdose. He was facing 25 to life. Then there was the fellow who was from the Gobel real estate gang. They found real estate owners who had no family, tricked them into selling their apartments, and killed them. They murdered 25 people. He was facing life.”
“Interestingly, there were free cells and commercial cells in jail. The commercial cells were occupied by bureaucrats. They paid 10 dollars a day. The commercial cells had showers, video games, AC, a water filter, a fridge. The food was good for everyone, I can’t complain. I celebrated my birthday in jail, that was when they accused me of aggravated hooliganism. I was facing six years in jail, which was a kind of ‘present’ for me.
Strangely enough, it was the “brotherly help” of neighbouring Russia that saved Dzmitryi. Russia’s “little green men” in Crimea must have frightened President “Batka” Lukashenko to the point of making overtures to the West in letting political prisoners go. Criminal charges were scaled back to petty vandalism, Dzmitryi spend 20 days in jail. Today he consults other anarchists on how to behave in jail.
In jail for a bike ride
In April, I saw an unusual action. On Friday evening, right next to the tourists strolling on Svislochi embankment, a column of cyclists with a black and green flag flew by. “Anarchists!” the crowd called out. The cyclists were cut off by a van a few blocks away. Riot policemen threw them off their bikes and dragged to a bus, where they were beaten.
The action, called “Critical Mass”, was meant to highlight bicycle use. It takes place all over the world, but in Minsk the participants were declared criminals. Four were accused of violating traffic law, two accused of attacking law enforcement. Stanislava Konovalov was let go after he signed an agreement to not leave town, but Dmitry Poliyenko remains in jail.
I talk to Alexey, one of the cyclists involved, after he was freed. He is a gym teacher. In his free time, Alexey agitates for healthy living and for environmentally-friendly cycling.
“Dima’s accused of resisting when they beat him,” Alexey tells me. “He tore a policeman’s cape. Now he faces up to six years in jail. But we’ll fight for him!” In May, activists staged a bike ride for political prisoner and anarchist Poliyenko. He turned 22 in jail.
According to human rights campaigners, Belarus has 15 penal colonies, one reform colony for teenagers, six pre-trial detention centres, three jails, three penal colony-settlements, 29 open-type reform facilities, and nine medicinal and labour prevention centres for alcoholics and drug addicts. Belarus has a sum of 33,000 people behind bars.
The last person I saw in Belarus was the Nobel-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich. I keep thinking about what she said during her talk: “If suffering doesn’t translate to freedom, what’s the point of the suffering?”